Cards on the table, I’m a lucky guy. Over the past 20 or so years I’ve met many of my Albion heroes through writing books about the club and contributing to the match programme. Along the way, I’ve bumped into many of Albion fans in pubs, at book signings, on trains, at matches, etc. As a result, I’ve developed a pretty good sense of what makes you tick…..at least from an Albion point of view. I know who your heroes are because you tell me: Norman Gall, Kit Napier, Peter O’Sullivan, Fred Binney, Peter Ward, Steve Penney, Garry Nelson, Bobby Zamora and Glenn Murray to name a few. Funny how the same 20 or so names always seem to crop up. The one that’s missing, and for the life or me I can’t work out why, is Michael Robinson.
‘Robbo’ arrived at the Goldstone Ground during the summer of 1980 from Manchester City, the club that 12 months earlier had splashed out an astronomical £756,000 for him from Preston North End. Long story short, he failed to deliver at Maine Road, so we got him for almost half that. In his first campaign with the Albion, Michael scored 22 times in the league and cup. Nobody had ever done that for us before in the top-flight, and nobody has ever done it since. If it hadn’t been for ‘Robbo’ we would have been relegated weeks before the last ball was kicked. Instead, we survived on the final day.
The following season saw Albion adopt a more cautious approach under manager Mike Bailey, successor to Alan Mullery. Despite that, plus two months lost to injury, Michael still reached double figures. In 1982-83 he contributed three of the goals which got Albion to Wembley in the FA Cup final, including the winner in the semi. He could so easily have notched a fourth in the final itself. Instead his mazy run in the last minute of extra-time climaxed with a pass to Gordon Smith. To this day, just about every surviving member of Albion’s cup final team expresses surprise that ‘Robbo’ didn’t have a go himself. That’s no reflection on Smith. It’s just that strikers are supposed to be selfish, aren’t they?
Following Albion’s relegation to the second tier in 1983, Michael joined Liverpool and won silverware galore before moving to Spain where he became a hugely respected figure thanks in the main to his post-playing career as a media pundit.
Former Albion manager Alan Mullery, the man responsible for bringing Michael Robinson to the Goldstone Ground, recalls how he helped our strapping centre forward rediscover his scoring touch.
It was the strangest thing, it really was. We needed a centre forward. I remembered Michael when he was at Preston, and he scored goals week in, week out for them. Then he was sold for what in those days was a huge amount of money to Manchester City. When he was playing for Manchester City under Malcolm Allison, it wasn’t the Michael Robinson who had played for Preston. At Preston he was forever busy in the box, good in the air, quick, a big lad to mark. I thought ‘Why has he lost this ability to score goals?’
Anyway, I got in touch with Manchester City to see if they would sell him, and they were quite happy to, even though they’d spent all that money on him. I lived in Cheam in those days, and he came down to my house but he came with an agent, which was quite unusual in those days. The first thing I said to him was ‘We don’t want to speak to your agent. We want to speak to you’. Michael said ‘Well, he does all my business’. I said ‘Michael, you’re a grown man. If you can’t talk to me about what you want to earn and what you want to do, then I’m not really interested in taking you’. I said ‘I want to see the character that tells me I should buy you’. Our club chauffeur was driving them around having picked them up from the airport, and Michael said to the agent ‘Just go off and come back in a couple of hours’. So off he went, and we got down to talking.
The first thing I asked him was ‘Why, when I saw you scoring goals galore at Preston, do you keep running towards corner flags for Manchester City instead of staying in the box?’ He said ‘Well, Malcolm Allison kept telling me to make those runs for other people to get into the empty spaces around centre halves’. I said ‘But Michael, you scored goals for fun at Preston. Now you’re 40 yards away from scoring goals, making these runs’. He said ‘Well that’s what he told me to do’ and I said ‘Well I don’t want you doing that. If you come and play for us, I want you inside that box when we’re attacking’. He said ‘Well that sounds very good’. We agreed on what he was going to do for us and paid the fee.
At some point during his first season at Brighton, I reminded him of that chat as he went about getting 20-plus goals for us. He was still only a young lad and a lot had happened to him already. I think City had paid almost £800,000 for him and we got him for around £400,000. But he was an entirely different player for us. I think he only scored three or four goals for them because he was never in the right areas to score goals. With us, he scored on a regular basis in the top division, and people like that are very few and far between, aren’t they? I think he also grew up at Brighton. He was a big, powerful lad, but quiet as well. With us, he changed from being a boy into a man.
In the five years I was at Brighton, we went from the Third Division to the First Division, as it was in those days, with this kid Peter Ward – who I’d never seen or heard of before I arrived – scoring goals for fun. But once we got in the big league, it changes completely. You had to get people who scored you goals. But then everybody else was looking for those players as well. Michael was the player who got us those goals. He really was a very good centre forward. And, of course, he went on to be successful outside his playing career in Spain at pretty much everything he turned his hand to.